The Upanishads spoke of the “one reality;” an invisible and indivisible One which we are connected with, even if we don’t understand the true nature of this connection, or the benefits we derive from it. The same can perhaps be said of the wireless web, the next generation of the Internet that is set to explode into mainstream culture very soon. The wireless world that we can reach out to with cellphones, wi-fi, and devices like the Kindle, is steadily becoming more interactive. With the promise of blazing fast data transfer speeds, the range of services you can expect, whether in your home, office, or traveling the remotest parts of the world, is going to exceed the visions and dreams of the wildest technology adventurers.
For the layperson, it is hard to understand the evolution of groundbreaking technologies while they are still being forged. Most of us will understand the complexities of this birthing process only far after the technology has matured. It is therefore helpful to have a book that describes the potentials and possible directions of a new technology while it is still being conceived in the minds of scientists and engineers, or being designed at universities and corporate laboratories. Web on-the-go is one such attempt.
Sankar notes that we are at a transitional period, not just in technology but in the broader world of politics and policy as well. There is great hankering for a new direction to be charted for the country, a direction that the next generation can look forward to. There are many new sciences and areas of research that can fill the sails with wind for this journey, and the growth of infrastructure and software for an expansive wireless Internet is definitely one of them.
What will be the “killer app” for the wireless net? History has little to teach us, typically, when it comes to information technology. Who would have known a decade ago that people would willingly conduct personal commerce on the Internet and trust it enough to do all their banking online? Who would have thought merely four years ago that the practice of sharing information with and about one’s friends, once largely the domain of gossip-prone college students, would become such a popular pastime that it fueled a billion-dollar market?
Web on-the-go makes a game attempt to gaze into this crystal ball by employing the classic technique of hedging bets: Sankar lays out a list of “key players” who will undoubtedly play some role in the future and supports his visions by recounting recent incidents where mobile technology was used to good effect. The harrowing story of the family lost in a remote mountainous region of southern Oregon forms a tragic but compelling backdrop for a vivid description of how these technologies, even in their infancy, can be a critical component in search-and-rescue operations. Other scenarios include the use of this technology by tourists and by multinationals that track shipments of products all around the globe.
There are many more scenarios and technical alternatives to the future of mobile technology than those explored in this book, and while the demands of publishing do impose some limits on how many Sankar could have explored, the reader would have definitely benefited from an overview of these possibilities. For instance, the lower cost and easier setup of wireless infrastructure, compared to its wired equivalent, makes it a great candidate to improve access to the web in remote and relatively impoverished areas.
Currently, many of the benefits of information technology are limited. We cannot access information at the same time that we are experiencing the world around or us, or acting in it, which is when that information would be the most useful to us. Mobile technology today gives us a tantalizing peek into these possibilities, but the technology is its infancy; downloading videos degrades quality; your phone doesn’t know which store you are in and what the prices of all the products you are walking past are; and you couldn’t wave a phone over a topical news item and have it provide you with an up-to-date newscast of related events over the next few days. Each of these tasks requires changes in the magnitude and complexity of data that our wireless infrastructure can process.
What could we possibly do once we have all this information streaming into us at every moment of our lives?
Web on-the-go tries to answer this question with its own story, whose main protagonist is the “Mobile Internet Device (MID).” The possibilities of the MID are limited by its form factor—it is a device that can fit in the palm of one’s hand but is still obtrusive in nature. It exists independently from its user, just like most mobile devices today, and can usually act only after receiving input from its owner. While the scenarios in the book go some distance in imagining what such a device can do, they don’t go far enough. Instead, what if the MID was in our bodies? Mechanically augmented with information-processing devices, we’d truly enter a brave new world.
At laboratories around the country, at places like MIT and Carnegie-Mellon University, research is being conducted into just this possibility. It is motivated by a fundamental difference in the forms of computation that man and machine are each capable of. Human beings are (still) infinitely superior at pattern recognition, but computers can crank out logical calculations infinitely faster. This usually means that the combination of computer and human works best when the latter sifts through large amounts of data to find a few interesting patterns for the human to look at and decide which ones are truly useful. Crowd surveillance works on the principle of using computers to pinpoint faces in hours upon hours of footage, feeding the discovered faces to human investigators who look for more abstruse patterns among them.
In the future envisioned by this research, a tremendous amount of information flows wirelessly to our bodies where quasi-independent electronic intermediaries act as gateways. Just as your doctor might peruse through a mountain of medical data, and reduce it to a simple prescription you can follow, so would these devices decide what you need to know so that you can function effectively in your information-rich environment. Participating in this world requires a leap of faith that can be both exciting and scary. The thought of such devices might evoke images of sci-fi horror movies.
However, such enhancements do not have to create Frankensteins. Prosthetic devices with sophisticated electronics are becoming more commonplace now. Imagine a device that will not just correct diseased or under-developed organs, but enhance what we consider “normal” functioning of an organ today—eyeglasses for auto assembly line workers that highlight tiny aberrations in part sizes, smell enhancers that help firefighters notice gas leaks minutes before a valve explodes; skin implants that make it even easier for blind people to interpret Braille signs; and so on. Today, these devices have to be wired partly because the amount of data that typically has to flow to them is too large to transmit wirelessly; with more advanced wireless infrastructure, that bottleneck would not exist.
Though Sankar could take a wilder flight of fancy than he has chosen to in his book, he certainly portrays, with ease and simplicity, a variety of situations that reveal this world of technology as it evolves around us.
Any writer of technology faces the problem of immediate obsolescence—already, some of the ideas he imagines have become reality. Perhaps it’s precisely in order to avoid the embarrassment of not looking futuristic enough that visionaries like Ray Kurzweil forecast a world so far into the future that there’s no immediate danger of their predictions being tested by reality. Web on-the-Go appeals to both the fantastic and pragmatic nature in us; and if the book was to be completely outdated in a couple of years, at least the author knows that there is a market for a sequel!
The author is a software consultant in the United States.